united states project

Al Jazeera America: Think NPR with pictures (and a little baggage)

On week one, the network looked solid. Nothing to gasp at. But what constitutes success in the long run for AJAM?
August 26, 2013

Al Jazeera joined the American TV lineup last week with minimal damage to the republic. There was no sign of bin Laden, no call for jihad, and no ranting about the evils of the American empire–just a workmanlike recounting of the day’s events, interspersed with testimonials from fresh-scrubbed young reporters, most recently employed by local TV stations, telling us how much they love America and apple pie.

OK, I exaggerate. But the Al Jazeera network, created and funded by the government of the Arab emirate of Qatar, has been battling for years to access the US market. Most cable and satellite distributors wouldn’t touch them, in large measure for fear of a political backlash against carrying a channel once framed by the Bush administration as terrorist television.

Earlier this year, Al Jazeera bought Current TV, owned in part by former vice president Al Gore, for $500 million, in order to launch Al Jazeera America, prompting the conservative watchdog group Accuracy in Media to warn the move posed an “unacceptable danger to American citizens by further adding to the potential for home-grown Jihadists inspired by Al Jazeera’s inflammatory programming.” Time-Warner dropped Current on the heels of the Al Jazeera purchase, and AT&T’s U-verse pay-TV service pulled the plug on the eve of the launch “due to contract disputes,” prompting the Qataris to file suit.

After all that, the first few days’ programming was a bit of an anti-climax. Think NPR with pictures (and a little political baggage). The reporting was solid, the few “expert” guests really were experts, interviews were, for the most part, intelligent, and the rundowns were a predictable mixture of the top stories of the day. No reason to be either horrified or gasp in awe.

Most laudable was the absence of celebrity news or sensationalism. Tuesday, at about the same time CNN was flashing “breaking news” on the screen and endlessly looping video of children fleeing a Georgia school long after the shooter had been nabbed, AJAM (as insiders call the new channel) showed a few seconds of the kids being comforted, said they were all safe and the shooter was in custody and–rightly–moved on to the next story.

A couple of key themes emerged in the first week:

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• We’re just like you. Broadcasts were interspersed with promos featuring an aggressively multi-cultural assortment of anchors, reporters, and producers, talking about their roots in places like Texas and New Orleans.

• You already know and trust us. While AJAM didn’t hire marquee names–no Christiane Amanpour or Ted Koppel–there are plenty of familiar faces to reassure viewers, like former CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien and former GMA host Antonio Mora. At one point on the first day, anchor Tony Harris introduced business anchor Ali Velshi, who said it was great that they were working together again, a reference to their days at CNN.

AJAM has made much of the fact that it is opening a plethora of bureaus across the US. many off the beaten path for broadcast–in places like Detroit, Seattle, and Nashville, some staffed by long-time local reporters in those markets–to cover stories not normally on the national media’s radar. It’s an adaptation of the “view from the global South” approach–an outsider/insider perspective–that Al Jazeera English, AJAM’s international sister, has successfully applied to covering the world.

There were glimpses of this in the first days with lengthy reports on the effects on mining in the Louisiana bayou, the personal side of violence in the LA hood, fallout from Chicago school closings, and a look at what pot legalization means to small growers in Washington State. That same “there’s more to America” reporting could be seen on AJAM’s most ambitious program, the daily America Tonight magazine show, produced by the Current TV documentary team, which moved over to AJAM. The show took a generally solutions-oriented approach, examining a Cincinnati education success story, looking at how experimental drug testing is offering hope, and a gritty piece on gang life in inner city Chicago. International news on the show was generally presented through a how-it-affects-the-people prism, including reporter Christof Putzel’s ‘here I am in danger’ piece from Cairo of the kind that Richard Engel perfected for NBC’s Rock Center.

Other documentary and interview programs, some repurposed from Al Jazeera English, rotate through the schedule. These are refreshingly in-depth. Will Americans sit through a documentary about cholera in Dhaka or ritual circumcision over their morning coffee? That remains to be seen.

In the early planning stages, the Al Jazeera launch team–all staffers at Al Jazeera English–thought the new venture would be about 50-50 foreign and domestic news, leveraging the 70 worldwide bureaus operated by the parent network. That mix shifted when they realized most Americans want news about America first and foremost. But on week one, given the flow of news, it was hard to ignore the Middle East. Still, much of that story was reported through the prism of US policy, while its cousins overseas–Al Jazeera English and the mothership, Al Jazeera Arabic–focused first and foremost on events on the ground.

As it settles into a routine, AJAM faces several questions and challenges:

Can it succeed? And what is success? The channel is bankrolled by the government of oil-and gas-rich Qatar, so making money is not the goal. The primetime cable news audience is already small–about 4 million viewers in primetime–but it is likely a channel that is dominated by reporting, rather than opinion, sensationalism, and vitriol, can carve out a niche. If they’re talking about AJAM in the halls of power, that’s a victory; reaching ordinary folk is less important.

• Will Qatar skew AJAM’s reporting? Al Jazeera Arabic is being hammered in the Middle East for a perceived pro-Muslim Brotherhood bias and Al Jazeera English was criticized for allegedly downplaying the political uprising in Bahrain, Qatar’s neighbor. For AJAM, the challenge will come on stories that directly affect Qatari foreign policy. And if there is ever domestic unrest in the Arab emirate, that’s when to watch for a call from Doha.

• Can Al Jazeera America shake the terror TV label? Hillary Clinton and others praised Al Jazeera English’s coverage of the Arab Spring, so that helps. The challenge will come when the US gets involved in another war, or AJAM’s investigative teams uncover a major story–like another Abu Ghraib, for example–damaging to America’s image.

Many challenges; but a tremendous opportunity to reshape American television journalism.

Correction: This post originally misidentified AJAM anchor Tony Harris as Ed Harris, and misspelled the name of CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour.

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Lawrence Pintak is founding dean of The Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University; a former CBS News Middle East correspondent; and creator of the free online Poynter course, Covering Islam in America. His most recent book is The New Arab Journalist: Mission and Identity in a Time of Turmoil.